Lessons from publishing 40+ erotica stories in 3 months
For whatever reason, talking about erotica in the indie publishing community still makes a lot of people immediately default to joking about the outliers like dinosaur love triangles or tentacle penetration. To me, that shows just how uncomfortable many so-called opened-minded creatives are about erotica’s place in the writing community.
And that’s the reason I rarely talk about my erotica days publicly. I’m not embarrassed about being into sex, but lots of people are.
If you lined up ten writers at random and asked me to pick which two publish erotica, I couldn’t tell you, because we look like everyone else, and honestly, most writers I know have an erotica pen name on the DL.
All that’s to say, the benefits that writing erotica can bring to your other writing projects are almost never discussed openly due to the stigma, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Hoping to cash in on the Wild West days of indie publishing, I decided to churn and burn with erotica — a hot genre at the time. I wrote and published 40+ short stories and two novellas in about 3 months, and while I never personally struck the motherlode, I didn’t leave empty-handed, either.
Here are some of the unforeseen benefits I took with me into my other writing projects:
Benefit 1: An Indie Publishing Crash Course
I quit my full-time job before my writing income was anywhere near what I needed to survive. Luckily, I had a little saved up, a cheap-ass lifestyle, and a husband with a stable job who owed me one after I’d supported him for a few years.
I’d only published two books previous to diving in the deep end. The first one was through a vanity press, and the second was through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing in conjunction with CreateSpace.
If you’re going to indie publish on a budget of next to nothing, you need to become a jack of all trades. That means learning how to make an acceptable book cover yourself, how to format, how to find an editor you can trade services with, how to write a sales description, how to navigate the uploading process, and how to get the word out for your book. And that doesn’t even include writing the damn thing, which is no small accomplishment the first few times around.
After completing 40+ erotica shorts in a quarter of a year, I can honestly say I’m intimately familiar with this process.
Were my erotica covers amazing? Nah. But I honed my Photoshop skills, learned where to get the best stock photos, and discovered simple ways to brand a series.
And over the course of the frenzy, I improved so that when it came time to start publishing other things, like A Single’s Guide to Texas Roadways, I was able to design the cover and format the interior (hint: including footnotes isn’t worth the trouble on InDesign, no matter how clever they are) all on my own. And the cover ain’t half bad, if I do say so.
Benefit 2: Up Your Daily Word Count
I usually published a 5k-10k word short story every 2–3 days. A typical week of writing looked like this:
Monday — Draft “Had Him Pegged 1”* Words: 4k
Tuesday — Draft “Had Him Pegged 1” Words 4k (finish)
Wednesday — Draft “Had Him Pegged 2” Words 3k
Thursday — Draft “Had Him Pegged 2” Words 5k (finish)
Friday — Revise “Had Him Pegged 1”
Saturday — Revise “Had Him Pegged 2”
Sunday — Create covers, format & publish Had Him Pegged 1&2
Prior to this rigorous schedule, I could generally complete 1–2k words in a day on the non-erotic work in progress. Sometimes I hit 3k and thought I’d accomplished a great feat.
And to be fair, I had. I don’t want to discredit writing 3k in a day, because depending on the story, etc. that can be huge. I’m only saying what I thought was my max became a pretty standard daily minimum.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t care as much about the erotica as I did about my other works. I still don’t. But it was through writing something I didn’t feel had to represent my heart and soul that I was freed up to stop worrying so damn much on the first draft, which is almost never great anyway, and keep moving forward.
It can be the greatest book in the world, but if you don’t finish it, it doesn’t matter.
Erotica, appropriately enough, taught me how to reliably finish. No performance anxiety, no dysfunction of any sort.
When I had my first 8k day, I felt invincible.
As artists, we’re taught that writing is supposed to be hard, so we set these stupid upper limits for our own abilities because if our words flow easily, then they must not be quality words, right?
“Pushing boundaries” is a very erotica thing, but it’s also a smart personal development thing. I learned that I was capable of producing more than I thought, and that confidence carried over to my other WIPs.
As of writing this, I’ve had my fair share of 10k days for humor projects, and while those were neither my nor my wrists’ favorite days, it’s nice to know I can do them when I need to. And I’m sure I could manage even more in a day if it came to it. After all, 10,000 is a totally arbitrary number.
Benefit 3: Learn to Give Readers What They Want
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. Because of that, I studied it. A lot. And when you do that, you can buy into the hype so many teachers, professors, and traditionally published writers push about what a story should and shouldn’t be. In the end, though, does it matter if a story “shouldn’t” be a certain way if it’s making you good money?
Erotica is the ultimate case of writing what people want, not what academics think they should want. Society puts random limits what we should think is sexy. But if you get real with yourself, you’ll probably find that some weird stuff turns you on.
At no point in my university’s creative writing program did we talk about how to write a successful werewolf gang bang scene. But, let me tell you, there are a whole buncha folks out there looking to read about a pack of sexy male werewolves sharing a human woman.
For obvious legal reasons, most distributors like Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, etc. don’t allow actual incest or bestiality or pedophilia. Those are pretty unanimously deemed “not good,” and personally, I agree! But taboo is wildly appealing, which leads to step-sibling erotica (“pseudo-incest” or “PI”), shifter romance or sex with mythical animals like dragons or bigfoot, and miles and miles of “first-time” romances where the young men or women are 18 but “look 14” or whatever.
You don’t have to write to these niches to write erotica, but you could if you wanted to, and learning about your own preferences in this area — what fetish or taboo do you enjoy writing about that you didn’t know you would? — is a step toward admitting that it’s okay to write what people want to read (yourself included), not just what society and academics think makes for “quality writing.”
Of all the stigmas to overcome, this is the biggest one for most indie writers.
Benefit 4: Learn to Tolerate Dumb Reviews
Dumb reviews are inevitable in this business. I’m not talking about the three-star reviews that point out actual flaws in your story, etc. Those will always hurt a little, and that’s normal. I’m talking about the drive-by one-stars reviews by people on a crusade.
It happens. People will download a book called Deflowered by the Yeti with a cover of a woman in a school-girl uniform quite clearly surrendering herself to a yeti, and then leave a comment like, “This book is filth! I couldn’t get more than 95% of the way through before I had to stop reading! Horrible smut!”
Nothing like sex to put on full display just how crazy some people can be. And while it’s a lot funnier to see people tripping out over your yeti’s inexplicably hairless genitals than it is to see them lose their shit at a book you genuinely poured your heart, soul, and maybe a little personal trauma into, it’s all the same in the end.
Crazy people are crazy people, and while their one-star reviews will hurt your rating, there’s nothing you can do about it (unless it violates a review policy, in which case you can report the hell out of it and get your friends to as well). The sooner you can learn to stop caring about the one-star reviews of the world, the better your whole life will be.
Benefit 5: Explore sexuality and power dynamics
Everyone can benefit from exploring their own sexual fantasies … and realizing there’s a difference between what one fantasizes about and what one would ever actually participate in.
You may be a woman who likes the fantasy of being with four men at once. But any woman who’s spent much time around men knows there’s no way four men could coordinate enough for that to be as sexy in practice as it is on the page, and the odds would be mega high that you’d take at least one accidental knee to the boob.
And so on. One thing my high school English teacher did tell me that I still believe today is that all literature is about sex.
I’d add onto that that all eros is about power, and playing with shifting and questionable sexual power dynamics in erotica can be a masterclass in how to craft intricate power dynamics between your characters in non-erotic scenes.
As a reader, there’s little I find more enjoyable in a story than seeing an established power dynamic flip in a subtle way, and writing a dozen BDSM scenes isn’t the worst way to learn how to master that art as a storyteller.
None of this is to say that erotica should be seen as a throw-away genre or that erotica isn’t deserving of the respect shown to other genres. There are some damn good writers whose only desire is to continue writing erotica, and we need those people to keep doing it because there are a lot of readers who want it. Just like there are a lot of readers who want high-quality sci-fi or horror or humor.
But many readers set the bar low for the story part of erotica, so long as there’s sex and lots of it. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Get yours. So while my foray into the genre didn’t necessarily teach me much about how to craft the most compelling police procedural, it taught me many other valuable things.
And if you want to be a professional fiction writer, you have to take your lessons wherever you can get them.
I quit writing erotica because my heart wasn’t in it. And that’s another lesson: you can try to follow the trends of what’s hot, but if it’s not really what you love to write, you can’t keep it up for long. You’ll burn out like I did, or your mind will simply refuse to provide you the stories you want, and will instead give you the stories it needs.
Erotica didn’t make me the kind of cash I’d hoped for anyway. So I dropped it and went full force into writing the Jessica Christ series, which was what had been on my heart and mind for a while.
And would you believe it? Despite everyone insisting that a satire series couldn’t make money, mine did and continues to do so. It’s not high-brow, but there is an audience for it (I knew there would be). On top of that, I was able to publish the first books of the series at lightning speed and for cheap (I designed the covers and formatted them myself). And when the super dumb reviews came a-rolling in, I knew how to laugh them off.
And it’s been smooth sailing since.
Just kidding. It’s never smooth sailing. But it’s easier when you know a little about how to steer the damn boat.
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*none of the erotica titles mentioned in this article actually exist to my knowledge.